The heart of “Bad Mother,” however—the ultimate crescendo it presents—is the questioning Celeste endures on the witness stand at family court, as Mary Louise’s cunning lawyer, Ira Farber (Denis O’Hare), questions Celeste about her sex life, her relationship with Perry, her relationship with drugs, and her fitness as a mother.
“You were aroused by the violence?” Farber asks her, after acknowledging that he is, himself, a survivor of domestic abuse.
“I was not aroused by the violence,” Celeste replies.
“You never said that, that the incendiary exchanges with your husband, including the physical violence, led to gratifying and passionate sex? Did you ever say that?”
“My relationship with my husband was very complicated.”
“Complicated. Was it sick?”
“It was not healthy.”
“Are you over your sickness?”
“Objection,” Celeste’s lawyer calls.
“Sustained,” Judge Cipriani (Becky Ann Baker) responds.
Farber rephrases. “Did you miss the violence?”
“No,” Celeste replies. “I do not. I miss my husband. But I don’t miss getting beat up. So.”
The questions go on like this, unrelenting in their litany. They include Farber sharing pictures of the men Celeste has had sex with in the aftermath of Perry’s death, grainy images shot from a surveillant distance. (Mary Louise hired a private detective to trail her, Celeste later speculates.) The questions are meant to humiliate Celeste and degrade her and, ultimately, break her; there is, for all the formal niceties playing out in Judge Cipriani’s courtroom, a quiet barbarity to the whole thing. At several points, Celeste looks over to the judge, silently, pleadingly, expecting that she might intervene to end the humiliation. For reasons left unclear, Judge Cipriani does not.
You could, in this exchange, read some of the insights of Christine Blasey Ford and Julie K. Brown and Barbara Bradley Hagerty: A woman is testifying to her pain, offering it up to the public record—and that pain is being publicly questioned. “You were aroused by the violence?” Farber says, in a question designed to turn Celeste’s own trauma against her. The whole thing is gutting to watch. But the courtroom setting, at the same time, lends a notable coldness to the proceedings. This is legal theater. The trauma here doubles, uncomfortably, as performance.
On Friday, IndieWire published a story detailing the creative turmoil of Big Little Lies’ postproduction, and the writer Chris O’Falt’s reporting explains a lot about the choppy episodes that have resulted from the churn. Celeste’s on-stand suffering in “Bad Mother” is a step toward the even more climactic clash that will come, ostensibly, in the season’s final episode: Mary Louise will take the stand. And Celeste—the lawyer who is fighting for her children—will be the one to question her. It’s a conclusion that has the feel of inevitability, and not only because Big Little Lies’ showrunner, David E. Kelley, has long gravitated toward courtroom-centered clashes. There’s also an aptness to a show that has lost its earlier nuance finding its resolution in the structured exchanges of the courtroom scene. One side here, the other there; the hero here, the villain there: It will be great melodrama. The question is whether it will be much more than that.